In early July an 8-year-old boy from Baltimore named Zion Harvey became the world’s first recipient of a pediatric bilateral hand transplant. Zion was only 2 years old when he nearly died of a massive sepsis infection that forced the amputation of his hands and legs and compromised his kidneys. He received a kidney from his mother Pattie. In 2012 he visited Dr. Scott Kozin at Shriners Hospital of Philadelphia, who made the daring suggestion that rather than be fitted with a prosthesis Zion be considered for the double hand transplant. He underwent the daunting operation at nearby Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia under the direction of Dr. L. Scott Levin. Ten attending surgeons worked ten and a half hours, with a support staff of thirty. Today a team of physical and occupational therapists is teaching Zion to once again use his hands. Zion is one remarkable kid, with an irrepressible spirit and incandescent smile. If you haven’t seen his story on YouTube, watch it. You will cry.
Long before fingerprint ID, our ancestors realized that our hands are uniquely our own. They help define each and every person. The words of our millennia-old liturgy, words that we recited Rosh Hashanah morning and this morning, contain a striking phrase that you miss if you don’t know the Hebrew. In the U’netaneh Tokef—“Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die” section we read, “You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.” The term for “signature” is hotem yad, literally the imprint of our hand: our palm print. In metaphorical language that recognized every person’s unique set of hands, the liturgy is suggesting that God remembers our every deed by examining the Book of Life that is the work of our hands, our own actions.
Three years ago an international team of scientists announced that some of the famous cave art from Spain and France was far older than previous thought. And it turned out that the oldest of the old, earlier than the stunning murals of bison and horses, was a simple red stencil hand print at El Castillo. Almost 40,000 years ago a Stone Age man or woman held up his or her hand and drew its outline, saying “this is me, I am here”.
Is it any different than your child saying, “Look Mommy, look Daddy. Look what I made,” and proudly holding up their hand print. What do you do? You hang it on the refrigerator, for everyone to see. Once caves were sacred space; now it’s the kitchen. How little has changed in forty thousand years.
Even before we speak we signal with our hands. The Talmud says that we enter the world with ours fists clenched and leave it with our hands open. Think about the implications of that one for a moment—there’s a whole sermon there… which I will give at another time.
As humankind advanced, our hand print evolved into our signature. The remarkable dexterity of the human hand, so crucial to primitive tool making, now enabled writing. Why is it that we still seek an autographed book or baseball? The signature on an object immediately personalizes and connects to people. That was the copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln himself signed. That was the ball that Babe Ruth autographed. The signature differentiates that document or ball from every other one.
Leonard Nimoy died this past year. His Vulcan hand salute on Star Trek, “live long and prosper,” was known the world over. Most of you probably know (but just in case you don’t) that the salute was taken from the priestly benediction that Nimoy saw when attending synagogue as a boy. To this day in traditional synagogues the cohanim still raise their hands during this prayer and form a “Shin”, which stands for Shaddai, one of God’s names. It’s the same reason that a “Shin” is drawn on the outside of every mezuzah parchment. I wonder how many Trekkies realize they are signing a Hebrew letter and copying a synagogue ritual when they make the Vulcan salute?
True Trekkies will remember a poignant image from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The Starship Enterprise had been gravely damaged. Scotty can’t do anything. There’s only one hope: someone must enter the radioactive nuclear chamber and manually repair the power source. It’s a suicide mission. To do so means certain death. Spock, that curious mixture of logic and compassion, goes in and locks the door. He saves the Enterprise. As he stands at the protective glass partition, already dying, mouthing his last words to his best friend Jim, he puts his hand against the glass in salute. Then Jim does the same, mirroring Spock’s hand. No further words are needed. It’s hand to hand; heart to heart.
By the way, if you visit some very traditional Jewish cemeteries you will occasionally see an engraved set of hands on the tombstone, held up much like Spock did. It’s highly unusual to see anything but Hebrew letters on Jewish tombs. But the sign of the hands was an exception reserved for cohanim.
The Bible is replete with images of hands: the right hand of might, the wicked hand, the bloodstained hand, the upraised hand of prayer.
Perhaps the most dramatic is the story of when Jacob conspires to steal the blessing of the firstborn of his brother Esau from his father Isaac. Jacob needs to impersonate his hairy brother before his blind father, so he wraps his hand in goatskin. When he meets his father, you can sense the shadow of doubt that passes over the aged patriarch at the moment of deception. “The voice is the voice of Jacob,” he says, “but the hands are the hands of Esau.” The hands win, and Jacob receives the blessing intended for Esau, and nothing is ever the same.
But there is another phrase from the Tanakh that I want to share, because it gets to the heart of what I want to say on this Yom Kippur. The Psalmist (115:7) speaks of the person “who has hands but does not touch.” Our hands have so many uses, but ultimately it is the simple power of the human touch that is most significant. I mean this physically and metaphorically.
When the liturgy says that God is looking for our imprint, consider that first and foremost we are being asked: have you reached out to another? Have you touched another’s life? Have you made a difference?
Family, friends, colleagues, clients, customers, casual acquaintances, even adversaries… the possibilities are all around, if we pursue them.
Have you taken their hand? Shaken their hand? Held their hand? Patted their back? Stroked their hair? Given them a hug?
“Who has hands but does not touch.” How awful to be invisible and untouched… and how much more so when you have the opportunity to touch and do not.
Audrey Hepburn, who I have never quoted before, said, “As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.
A story is told of two God fearing people at the gates of heaven. God says to them: you both claim to be faithful servants. Now show me your hands. The two look at each other in surprise. The first puts out his hands; they are totally smooth. The second puts out his hands; they are full of scars. The Almighty ushers in the second, saying “well done”. The Almighty signals for the first to wait. “Why am I being detained?” he queries. God looks at his hands again, and then says, “Was there nothing worth fighting for? Was there nothing worth serving? You have lived a long life, and there are no scars?”
The folksinger Jewel has a beautiful song called “Hands”. In the last line she daringly suggests that “we are God’s hands”.
Would that we remember that as we go about our lives.
That remarkable little boy, Zion Harvey—he’s one of most articulate kids I’ve ever heard. He talked about how he managed to do so much without hands. He talked about what he wanted to do with hands. His goal is to one day swing on monkey bars. Toward the end of one interview he sensed a question that the interviewer did not explicitly ask: what would happen if the surgery does not go as planned, if the new hands do not take? He said, “And I’ll be fine if they mess up. Because I will still have my family.”
Zion Harvey touched thousands even before his new hands. I am sure he will touch thousands more.
Before I close… a personal note. I have wanted to give a sermon on hands for a long time. The reason is one some of you may suspect. My wife Debby is a hand rehabilitation therapist. These days she travels around the country and around the world teaching occupational and physical therapists the splinting of the hand. Before that she spent twenty years in the clinical setting. And part of that time she worked at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia with Dr. Scott Kozin, the surgeon who first suggested Zion Harvery’s surgery and assisted with it.
So I knew this was time to give that sermon. And although I don’t usually dedicate sermons to individuals, this one is dedicated to Debby, my partner for the last 35 years.
The ancient Psalmist, the same one who spoke of hands that do not touch, concludes the 90th Psalm with a beautiful prayer, as I do now:
Vayehi noam Adonai Eloheinu aleinu; u’maseh yadeinu konena aleinu; u’maseh yadeinu konenainu.
May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper; O prosper the work of our hands!